On a recent writing retreat in Tangier, Morocco, I was going through back issues of the Tangier Gazette, an English-language newspaper from the International Zone era. During this time, which lasted from 1924–1956, Tangier was run by several different European nations plus the United States. The governments gave people a free hand, and Tangier became notorious for allowing things that were illegal everywhere else — drugs, homosexuality, and prostitution. That attracted writers such as William S. Burroughs, Paul and Jane Bowles, and many others.
The April 6, 1956, edition of the Gazette has this little tidbit about Mack Reynolds, a prominent science fiction author of his day. His career got started shortly after World War Two in the detective pulps, and he soon branched out to write science fiction. Reynolds had a taste for travel and moved to Mexico in 1953. He and his wife soon pulled up stakes and set off on an epic ten-year trip through Europe, North Africa, and the Far East, supported by his science fiction and travel writing. The trip finally ended with their return to Mexico.
During his time in Morocco, he and his wife struck out into what is now Mali to visit Gao and Timbuktu. This is not an easy trip now, and back then it was an epic journey few attempted. Just look at what happened to Kit Moresby in The Sheltering Sky.
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On my last trip to Tangier I purchased a 1925 edition of Beau Geste, one of those classic novels that I’ve always intended on reading but never had. It’s a swashbuckling tale of three brothers who join the French Foreign Legion a few years before the start of the First World War.
The novel opens with a mystery. Mild spoilers follow. A French officer in the Legion leads his troops to an isolated fort, responding to a call for help. Once there, he finds all the legionnaires dead inside, apparently shot by the warlike Tuareg. The commanding officer, however, has a French bayonet sticking out of his chest and the private beside him, although shot, has been carefully laid out with his hands across his chest. The private’s hat rests nearby, torn open. In the hands of the dead officer is a mysterious letter in English that contains a confession. . .
From that tantalizing beginning we cut to England, where three rich brothers have to flee home and end up in the French Foreign Legion. Add a cruel officer, hordes of Tuaregs, and some boon companions and you have the recipe for adventure. Author P.C. Wren writes in a breezy, wry style halfway between pulp pulse pounders and more highbrow literature. The style never feels dated although Wren’s worldview certainly does. There’s a definite hierarchy in this book, with the aristocratic Englishmen firmly at the top, the various Europeans and Americans they meet ranged further down depending on their social class, and the Arabs and Tuaregs right at the bottom. Women hardly figure in this book at all which, considering how agonizingly maudlin the one love scene comes off, is probably for the best.
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